Batman Essentials: The Dark Knight Returns

DKRIf you peaked to the best of your abilities would you know it? Would you realize it in hindsight? What would you do afterwards? I often think about this in regards to Frank Miller, a creator whose work I really admire from one point in his career and generally despise now both as an artists as well as in the general sense of being a human. But that doesn’t change the validity of his creations and with all that said when Miller was on he was able to work with a level of comic book alchemy that is still head and shoulders above anything else in the medium with his crowning achievement being The Dark Knight Returns; the greatest creation in the history of the comics. It takes all the things that only comics can do in a story and does them better, it redefines an entire superhero universe for the modern era, it satires it’s time but is still timeless and it lives in so many different genre’s and styles while still being truly it’s own singular voice that has not simply been imitated but more over became a staple of comic book creation. It doesn’t just transcend the medium or superhero’s so much as transcends artistic classification in and of itself. It’s trash fiction that is also a masterpiece, it’s the send off for the pre-crisis Batman that Miller would ultimately redefine and it’s a mirror on the inherent chaos and corruption of our  own world. In short it is the greatest comic ever created and if you are going to celebrate Batman The Dark Knight Returns is the greatest work of art in his story.

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Now you probably read all of this and are asking “Have you ever read Watchmen?” Yes I have. You are probably now asking “What the fuck are you talking varley-color-03 about? You don’t really think TDKR is better than Watchmen do you?” Yes I do although Watchmen is brilliant and I don’t begrudge anybody that does think it is the greatest comic of all time. I do think it has become accepted canonically as the greatest comic of all time and obviously I don’t agree with that. Why is Watchmen considered without question the greatest comic series of all time and why don’t I agree? Well to answer the first question I think there are two main reasons for Watchmen’s cultural status. One is because again Watchmen is unequivocally brilliant. It is probably the most well thought out and structured comic book series that achieves the rare task of affecting both the heart and the head equally in the most mind blowing way possible. It instantly created a sub-genre of superhero deconstruction while still managing to be significantly better than anything else that has ever been produced in said sub-genre. It is a comic that manages to honor the past while projecting towards the future of the medium. The other reason is because it translates towards non comic reading literary readers better than anything else. It isn’t about an established superhero which makes it easier to take seriously without having the baggage of more familiar characters and it speaks to both this sort radical ideology and themes of general alienation in ways that are similar to great post modern novels. And that in and of itself is fine. Moore has shown a clear reverence to classical literature over his career and in Watchmen he is at the height of his abilities. But as much as love The Watchmen I still love The Dark Knight Returns more and that’s because The Dark Knight Rises looks past all that. It isn’t a comic that pays reverence to literature of the past as much as it’s blazes and entirely new trail for the medium of comics by lighting tropes of the past on fire. It looks at 1980′s American culture and takes a blow torch to that as well. It’s only ideology is that ideology doesn’t exist. It acknowledges alienation andDarkKnight_nuns then moves on right past it to something deeper. It is a deeply humanistic and brutally violent examination of how people are forced to live within the chaos of humanities own creation. It’s lack of clear moral stance is more complicated in a good way. Nobody in this comic is easy to like but that’s also turned on the reader. Everybody is legitimately flawed from Batman on down but they are also trying their best in spite of those flaws. Jim Gordon is casually sexist while being willing to sacrifice his life at the drop of a hat for his spouse. Superman has let himself become a tool of the military industrial complex but he also saves the world from nuclear holocaust. The mutants are a group of young nihilistic sociopaths but when Batman steps in to give them guidance they save a city from devolving into total anarchy. Most flawed of all is Batman himself who is old and overmatched at almost every turn but he never stops and always endures. His body is literally falling apart and in the end he still takes on Superman. As much as The Dark Knight Returns is a satire of the 1980′s it is more an examination of humanities goodness at it’s core against the inherent complexity of a personality that is formed around an unwavering and unchecked desire and points to human connection as either the bridge between that duality or the reason for it’s explosiveness, which in the end is what The Dark Knight Returns is really exploring.

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btdk-023When I first started writing this I thought that The Dark Knight Returns is about violence but that’s only part of it. The Dark Knight Returns is about human interaction and how that can lead to not only violence but also connection and in some cases progress. This isn’t to say that The Dark Knight Returns isn’t violent because it is extremely so. You can see Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Neal Adams and Jim Steranko’s DNA all over Frank Millers art in this series as he creates beautiful action spreads that moves at a 100 miles a minute and almost never let’s up and never flinch at the most disturbing details or real consequences of that violence. He uses art to create a constant tension within the urban gothic/cyber punk backdrop and that tension is the stories center. In it there are essentially two reactions to the tension: fight or work together. For most of that story it is fight but where there is any real progress is when the protagonist work together. Even the final conflict with Superman is more an illusion of violence by Batman and Carrie as a mean to fool the world and evolve his fight against crime.  That ending is nearly perfect in that it shows a way for Batman to evolve that seems to have been lost on future creators. There are was still tons of unused caves for Bruce Wayne to explore. It wasn’t a death. It was new a beginning. It was Frank Miller telling you that nothing ever ends without spelling it out. It was showing that you can truly evolve by working with others. It showed that there was always more adventures. It showed that Batman would never truly die as long as we are willing to follow him into the unknown. But at his core it showed that even though loneliness and fear is all around us, salvation is within each other; that the future was with us united.

23 thoughts on “Batman Essentials: The Dark Knight Returns”

    1. Haha the spirit lives on. Although don’t tell that to Frank Miller or he’ll think you meant his shitty “The Spirit” movie and come talking about Islamic Terrorist or something

  1. A solid analysis, amigo.
    It does raise a great question. WATCHMEN VS DKR. Which is better? Personally, I seem to change my mind back and forth every few years. This cycle, I happen to be leaning toward Watchmen for all the reasons you listed above. Another thing it has going for it is that it’s 3 times larger than DKR. So many intricate pieces that come together brilliantly and as you said, it’s all new characters, so there’s no preconceived notions as to what is expected. No continuity baggage to sort through and figure out. Moore not being able to use those old Charlton characters like he wanted was one of the best things that could have happened for the story and his career.

    1. Yeah, DKR vs. Watchmen is a really hard choice, I totally get your opinion going back and forth. I think I stand pretty firm in camp Watchmen, but I also feel that it should be in a different category than Bat books. The ability to tell one concise, multi-generational tale–of a separate universe really–is on Watchmen’s side, and it’s hard to compare it to other super-books; the nice part is it really doesn’t matter, right? They’re both fucking rad, and we get to enjoy them whenever we want. :)

    2. Thanks man. I actually figured you were firmly in camp Watchmen but that’s cool that you go back and forth. I actually think the shorter story works to TDKR’s advantage. It’s funny I was talking to my sister in law who is just getting into comics. She recently read Watchmen and said “It’s good but I think it was too smart for me” She also never finished TDKR so for her she doesn’t even have that binary. She’s also super into video games which is how she got into comics. That’s one of the most interesting thing about comics is that everybody tends to come in with their own expectations and that tends to set the tone for how you read the text.

      1. I have a very good female friend who occasionally reads comics. Before the film adaptation came out I loaned her my copy of Watchmen. She read it, liked it, but had issues with how Silk Spectre was portrayed. I loaned her Killing Joke. She read that and said “OK, now I get why everyone loves Alan Moore.”

        As with so many things in life, our own personalities react to different things in different ways . . .

  2. Nice Job Pat. We talked recently about our differing opinions regarding Miller’s work, and afterwards I grabbed my copy of DKR and went back through it. I have to concede that the art was better than I remembered, especially the layouts and storytelling. It’s funny how time away can cloud our judgment sometimes. I still think I favor Year One over this as my favorite, but there is no denying the importance and legacy of this fantastic tale.

    1. I’d say one of the things working against TDKR in a historical context is Millers new work and his recent opinions can cloud the reading of that work. I think if you read it closely you can see how Miller got to the place he was at now but also that he wasn’t really there at the time of it’s creation so for me it stands out on it’s own. The problem with both Miller and Moore is that they were both pretty much told they did the greatest comics of all time at such a young stage in their careers and I think that ultimately stunted their growth as creators. They never really changed or imporved which is why the work they’ve done since that time period hasn’t lived up to those creations in addition to why they’ve both turned into raging ass clowns. While those two comics (and year one/killing joke/moore swamp thing & superman/miller 80′s DD) are certainly among the greatest comics of all time their bibliographies have been over shadowed by Grant Morrison, Brian K Vaughan, Garth Ennis, Warren Ellis and Joe Casey among others for the precise reason that those guys kept improving and evolving as writers while Miller and Moore have just done the same thing since the late 80′s.

      1. See, here’s where we politely disagree. I would include Morrison in the peaked early camp. His best work, in my opinion is the 80s/90s stuff: Doom Patrol, Animal Man & Arkham Asylum. I’ve liked some of his recent work, but much of it leaves me cold. Probably the best thing he’s done in the past decade has been Seaguy . . .

        I would also argue that Moore did branch out a little after the 80s. From Hell, for example, I would rank as one of his three masterpieces along with Killing Joke and Watchmen (and I don’t even agree with Moore’s solution to the Ripper mystery, so that’s saying something). I’ve only read the first volume of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but found it a lot of fun.

        Everything is a product of it’s time to some degree or other, but, Miller’s work I think is more so than others.

        1. Yeah true From Hell has to go up among his all time great works although I’d argue that it started in 1989 and was probably planned out at least during the same period as all his seminal DC work. Moore’s newer work does hold up on some level but I also find people can be selective about his post Watchmen stuff in their criticism. Like he worked on all the Image books when the company first started and some of that is meandering (Supreme) to just plain terrible (Spawn/Wild Cats) Even with ABC League and Prometha are some gems but other stuff like Top Ten is kind of meh. Again all that being said I will certainly still read new Alan Moore where if we got a review copy of a new Frank Miller comic I probably wouldn’t even read it and for the record I prefer Miller at his peak in the 80′s to Moore.

          1. See, I wasn’t reading comics regularly during the period Moore was doing all that Image stuff, so I tend to forget about it. And the less said about that Lost Girls book the better . . . But, yeah, I would consider reading something new by Moore, whereas Miller, not at all. Honestly, he lost me in the 90s with Sin City . . .

            1. I also think Moore and Millers stunted growth and how that plays into their later work can again be set against the views in TDKR. Like Moore”s ideology and philosophy (to a certain extent & on a base level. If you get into details it’s pretty far fetched) is something that is safe enough where you can keep producing work in that vein where as Miller’s philosophy is pretty much predicated on the idea that there is no philosophy and if that’s your world view as you grow older it’s really not that hard to evolve into a radical Sean Hannity style dumb ass.

              1. I think this is a good distinction to keep in mind as well. Moore has plenty of pretensions and eccentricities, but they are not as prominently displayed in his writing. So, when he says something odd in an interview it’s easier to shrug your shoulders and say “there he goes again.” Miller is a different case. Miller’s prejudices are more fully on display in his recent comic book work, which makes them pretty much impossible to ignore. Then, of course, once you’ve seen them in the current work, you can’t help but wonder if they were there earlier as well. I don’t mean to suggest that it invalidates all his writing, but it does make dealing with some of it much more complicated . . .

                1. See that’s the thing maybe it’s just me but I’ve gone back and read a lot of that stuff & I really don’t see THAT until Martha Washington & even back then he is still an equal opportunity slanderer for better or worst. TDKR is tricky because def pulling satire on society @ the time but that is a society that was more welcoming of Frank Miller now. Like he’s taking a huge piss on Ronald Regan throughout the book. I think he’s evolved into what he is now from the last 20 years or so with a combination of age, cocaine use & being in very close proximity to 9/11 @ the time of the event

  3. Good piece Patrick. As I’ve said before, Dark Knight Returns didn’t effect me the way it has so many others like yourself. It’s been so long since I read it, though, I’m overdue for another read through. Regardless, there is no denying the influence it has had not just on Batman,but comics in general.

    Interestingly, what actually stuck with me the most over the years wasn’t anything in the comic itself, but what Miller wrote in the introduction about legends having endings. He argues that myths are meaningless if there is not final story. A very intriguing idea.

    Dark Knight vs Watchmen? Well, I’d probably rephrase it as Year One vs Killing Joke. I don’t really believe that there is a single greatest anything (painting, album, film & so on). If you forced me to chose? Gaiman’s Sandman will always be my favorite . . .

    1. Thanks man. I was actually writing that since I feel like now most people would say Watchmen while I prefer TDKR. I actually read it again last week and I enjoyed it this time better then I can ever remember. Love it but yeah it’s my favorite comic and I guess this is me making the case for why I think it’s the greatest thing I’ve ever read.

      1. CBR did a user poll earlier this year for the greatest comic book storylines ever and Watchmen was #1. Both Dark Knight and Year One hit the top five, but I forget which got in the top 3 . . .

  4. I read TDKR years ago and I definitely need to get another copy to read again but having just read Watchmen for the 1st time (I know, I know ..WTF?) I can say that I have enjoyed Watchmen alot more but like I said, it’s been a long while and my memory of TDKR is faded.

    The only problem for me is that I saw the movie first and it spoiled some of the cool moments that I would of rather read in the book . The upside is that I’m hearing all of the characters voices in my head as I read. Rorschach ( “None of you seem to understand. I’m not locked in here with you. You’re locked in here with ME!) Fuck yeah…my favorite line possibly ever! and Dr Manhattans movie voices were spot on and in that regard my reading enjoyment is enhanced.

    I could definitely see why this is considered one of the best comics ever. I do agree that it would be hard to compare Watchmen to any “traditional” super hero comic because it had an ending and wasn’t hampered by anything that came before.

  5. “Even the final conflict with Superman is more an illusion of violence by Batman and Harper as a mean to fool the world and evolve his fight against crime.”

    Harper? I don’t remember a Harper.

  6. Up until the Dark Knight Returns superheroes never really aged. It makes us see the characters as far more human when we witness them struggle against their frail mortality.

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